Navy wife Stephanie Cato found out the hard way that dealing with state unemployment compensation long distance can be frustrating — or worse.
In her case, Washington state issued a tax lien after officials decided she should never have received about $590 worth of unemployment compensation payments when she moved to Japan with her husband.
Defense officials have been providing information to states about the need for military spouses to get unemployment compensation when they must quit their jobs for a permanent change-of-station move. In 2009, Michigan and Wyoming joined 24 other states, including Washington, that have enacted laws making spouses eligible for unemployment compensation.
But policies on whether spouses moving overseas are eligible for unemployment vary even within those states, according to the Pentagon and Labor Department.
Adding to the confusion: The two departments disagree on how often that happens.
"Benefits can frequently be awarded even when transferring overseas, since the eligibility for payment is determined in the state from which the person is moving," Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Les Melnyk said. "Unless an individual state has a policy otherwise, the place where a person is relocating should not be an issue.
"That said, Washington state is unique in that if a spouse is transferring to another state that does not grant unemployment compensation to similarly situated spouses, it may deny payment to the spouse."
The Labor Department says states often hold that eligibility stops at the U.S. borders. "To be eligible for [unemployment compensation], individuals must be available for work and taking appropriate actions to find work," said a Labor Department official who asked not to be identified. "U.S. citizens who move to another country are often not permitted to work in the other country or, if they are, have greatly reduced their prospects of finding work."
Cato is not alone, and the problems go beyond Washington state, said Katie Savant, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association.
"I've heard from spouses who complained about the confusion even with interstate claims," Savant said. "Not all local offices understand how to help military spouses."
And nowadays, with jobless claims in general on the rise, local offices have even less time to understand and help spouses, she said.
Verified, then later reversed
Cato did her research before she moved with her husband, Chief Machinist's Mate Jamie Cato, in March 2008. Under Washington state law, spouses are eligible for unemployment when they must quit jobs to move because of a spouse's employer-mandated transfer out of the area, to include the military.
She called to verify that she would be eligible even though she was moving to Japan. The person she talked to said yes and verified that with her supervisor, Cato said. Although she couldn't physically report to an unemployment services office, she was told she would be eligible as long as she kept records of her job search efforts.
But officials later reversed course and said she is not eligible, citing different reasons, she said. An administrative judge ruled in January that she is not eligible because she can't physically report to a state unemployment office in order to have her job search reviewed.
Last fall, Washington state officials notified Cato that they wanted the payment back, and issued a tax lien for $590, which appears on her credit record.
"They've made me feel like … I scammed them," Cato said.
"She couldn't have done more due diligence in this process," said Navy Lt. James Toohey, an attorney with the naval legal service office at Sasebo, Japan, who is helping the Catos. "She was extraordinary in her record-keeping and actions" in the job search.
Cato has filed a petition for review with the Washington state administrative judge who denied her appeal. A spokeswoman for the state's employment security department said the law bars her from discussing individual cases.
Cato said she notified Washington state officials as soon as she found a new job with an on-base financial institution at Fleet Activities, Sasebo, Japan, just six weeks after she arrived.
Cato said she has gotten conflicting communications from the state about her eligibility, about the reasons for her denial, as well as trouble communicating with the office even to get her address changed.
Savant said states need to ensure there's no confusion. "It would be helpful if Washington could clarify and be less vague so the spouse knows what to expect," she said.